Ukraine’s War Museums Are Documenting History as It Happens

Following Russia’s invasion, curators have shifted their focus from the past to the present as the country fights to claim a future entirely its own

Ukraine’s War Museums Are Documenting History as It Happens
Part of “Ukraine — Crucifixion,” the rotating exhibition at a museum in Kyiv that attempts to document Russia’s invasion in real time. (Martin Kuz)

Yuriy Savchuk stared at the line of glowing taillights that formed an endless red ellipsis in the darkness. His car and thousands of others inched forward hour after hour, stuck on the highway leading west out of Kyiv. Russia had invaded Ukraine days earlier and, trapped in a slow-motion exodus from the capital, he tried to grasp that a foreign army had wrenched his country back to 1941.

“Tanks, missiles, fighter planes — these things are supposed to be in the past,” he recalls thinking. “It must be a nightmare.”

The director of a World War II museum, Savchuk assumed that the type of large-scale invasion Germany unleashed on Ukraine 80 years ago went out with the 20th century. Warfare had evolved. Then Russian troops surged over his country’s border on Feb. 24 last year, and he saw that black-and-white history morph into the vivid, terrifying present.

Savchuk and a few colleagues drove their cars, laden with museum artifacts, through the night to western Ukraine, where they transferred the items to other institutions for safekeeping. He returned to Kyiv and, as fighting intensified on the city’s outskirts, he told his staff to look after their loved ones, while he stayed alone at the museum.

He watched over the thousands of objects still on site, crating as many as possible; at night, he slept on visitor sofas. In the urgency of the moment, with Ukraine’s independence under siege only three decades after the Soviet Union dissolved, Savchuk’s curatorial gaze began to shift. The relics of a distant war receded as a new history drew into focus.

His change in perspective inspired “Ukraine — Crucifixion,” a rotating exhibition that attempts to document Russia’s invasion in close to real time. Savchuk and a team of assistants have traveled across the country to collect thousands of battlefield and civilian artifacts, including Russian artillery shells and soldiers’ uniforms, smashed furniture, charred toys and remnants of an incinerated church. Each exhibit lays bare the ravages of an unprovoked war.

“This is the story of what Russia does to Ukraine,” Savchuk said. He stood beside a display case that held passports, journals and operational maps recovered in the Kyiv region from Russian troops who died or fled. “We need to build memories of this war during this war, not after. We want to show the history we are living.”

His mission to chronicle the destruction before the bombs stop falling parallels the approach of other war museum curators as they seek to reinforce the idea of Ukraine’s autonomy in the collective consciousness. Their efforts reflect the country’s twin ambitions to move its national narrative out of the Kremlin’s long shadow and claim a future entirely its own, liberated at last from centuries of Russian tyranny.

Days before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin had reiterated his belief that Ukraine and its distinct heritage belong, in fact, to Moscow. “I would like to emphasize again that Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us,” he said in a televised address. “It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”

His crusade to extinguish Ukrainian identity has galvanized curators to guard the cultural ramparts. Olha Honchar oversees a museum in Lviv that explores the experiences of people in western Ukraine under the Soviet and Nazi regimes. Since the invasion’s first weeks, she and her staff have recorded conversations with people arriving in Lviv after evacuating from elsewhere. She plans to weave their accounts into an oral history that captures Ukraine’s anguish and resilience in its struggle to remain free.

“The war made me realize our museum is not only about the past,” she said. “With these interviews, we can help coming generations know the trauma Russia caused us. It is our duty to make sure Ukraine never forgets.”

Putin’s war has accelerated a “de-Russification” campaign within Ukraine to remove traces of Russian culture and Soviet imperialism from public spaces. The movement started after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 but lacked momentum until 2015, when the Ukraine Parliament banned place names that honored Soviet-era figures.

Lawmakers approved the so-called “decommunization” measure a year after Putin annexed Crimea and backed Russian operatives who seized a portion of southeastern Ukraine. His actions followed the Maidan Revolution earlier in 2014 that ousted Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, widely regarded as a Kremlin footman.

The Maidan Museum in Kyiv, founded in 2015, strives to illuminate how the popular uprising reaffirmed the country’s political and cultural independence from Russia. Ihor Poshyvailo, the museum’s director, described the four-month revolution, during which more than 100 protesters died in clashes with police, as the opening battle in Putin’s forever war against Ukraine.

“People had understood since 1991 that eventually there will be blood — a big conflict with Russia,” he said. The sense of inevitability sharpened with the rise of Putin, who came to power in 1999 and dismissed Ukraine’s sovereignty as a mirage. “What we are seeing today began with Maidan,” Poshyvailo said. “We knew he wouldn’t allow us to be free because, without Ukraine, Russia wouldn’t exist as an empire.”

As protests engulfed the country, Poshyvailo, then working at a folk art museum, met fellow curators who shared his desire to document the upheaval. Several later joined him in establishing the Maidan Museum, and since then they have hewed to a unifying principle.

“We must record history as it happens,” he said. “That means going outside our walls.”

The museum’s collection consists of some 4,000 artifacts — crowbars, helmets, handmade flags — that Poshyvailo and his staff obtained from protesters during and soon after the revolution. Early in Russia’s full-fledged invasion, his team turned to gathering items from ruined houses, schools and cathedrals in and around the Kyiv region. The tattered family portraits, singed textbooks and cracked chalices “are facts that cannot be denied,” he said.

“These are tangible things that build our historical memory,” he added. “They remind us [of] what Russia has done to ordinary people, ordinary homes, ordinary life.”

After the Soviet Union imploded, Ukraine and its museums continued to parrot a version of the country’s political and military history that Moscow had dictated over hundreds of years. The diluted national narrative marginalized Ukrainian identity yet proved stubbornly resistant to revision, enduring more or less intact through the new century’s first decade that brought the Orange Revolution and the checkered presidency of Viktor Yushchenko.

The Maidan rebellion and Putin’s subsequent land grabs awakened curators to the need to explicate Russia’s earlier oppression — particularly in the Soviet era — and its more recent machinations to sabotage Ukraine’s ties with Europe. For Poshyvailo and his colleagues, the war has further clarified the importance of museums presenting the country as a democratic nation standing against Moscow and with the West.

He considers the work a patriotic calling, one vital to fortifying the concept of a free Ukraine that can survive Russian belligerence and — equally important — the passage of time. “The truth about Ukraine-Russia relations in the 20th century was falsified by the Bolshevik and communist regimes,” he said. “Museums must tell that truth and the truth of this invasion so that Ukrainians never again have their own history stolen from them.”

Poshyvailo peered out from the museum’s temporary space on an upper floor of a building that overlooks Independence Square. The largest Maidan protests occurred there and, from his vantage point, Putin’s imperialist fantasies represent an extension of Moscow’s unending assault on Ukraine and the Ukrainian idea dating back to the mid-17th century. In that broader context, the salvaging of everyday objects will preserve for posterity the evidence of the country’s fight for liberty.

“This war is what Russia has done for centuries — not allowing Ukraine to be Ukraine,” he said. “Under the czars, under the Soviet Union, the atrocities were hidden or ignored. This time we will not be erased.”

Russia refers to WWII as the Great Patriotic War. When Ukraine enacted its decommunization law, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kyiv changed its name to the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War.

Savchuk, the director, explained that the switch signified the country’s departure from the Russocentric mythos of WWII. The prevailing lore had obscured the valor and sacrifice of the 4.5 million Ukrainians conscripted into the Red Army in forced service to Moscow. More than one-third died battling the Germans.

“Ukraine — Crucifixion” elevates the heroism of Ukrainian soldiers confronting another invading military 80 years later. In one exhibit, pieces of a destroyed Russian helicopter — scorched rotor blades, jagged tail fragment, punctured cockpit window — hang from the ceiling. A silent video projected on a wall behind the debris replays the moment that a missile fired by Ukrainian ground troops downed the low-flying aircraft north of Kyiv last year.

The Ukrainian army supplied the footage to Savchuk and assisted him with retrieving the wreckage. His ties with top military officials enabled him to enter Izyum, Kherson and other formerly occupied cities within a day or two of Ukrainian forces driving out the Russians. The access exposed him to war’s raw cruelty.

He observed families dead in their homes in Irpin and bodies buried in a mass grave in Bucha. The horrors stretched his understanding of WWII beyond the limits of research. “All of us now know the suffering that people went through then,” Savchuk said. “Now it is real. You feel this in your heart.”

Two years ago, the Kremlin posted on its website Putin’s windy, historically specious essay in which he denied the existence of a unique Ukrainian identity and labeled Ukrainians and Russians “one people.” Rejecting the integrity of Ukraine’s statehood, he proclaimed that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” — even as he insisted that “Russia has never been and will never be ‘anti-Ukraine.’”

Savchuk’s exhibition reveals the hollowness of those words, conveying with quiet power the dread of Ukrainian civilians and the menace of Russian soldiers. In the museum’s basement, Savchuk and his team recreated in meticulous detail an underground bomb shelter they visited near Kyiv after Ukraine reclaimed the area last year. Residents permitted him to take items for the exhibit. Arranged in the same position as in the shelter, the canned food, sleeping bags and stuffed animals allude to lives held hostage.

A large floor display near the museum’s entrance consists of dozens of pairs of combat boots set within a star-shaped red frame. The Russian troops’ footwear came from the Kyiv region, abandoned in retreat or recovered when the owners were killed or captured. Savchuk explained that placing the boots inside a red star — a prominent communist and Russian symbol — represents more than enemy soldiers trampling on Ukraine’s soil and autonomy.

“It is also to show how Russia crossed the border from humanity to inhumanity and violated the borders of culture, spirit and the concept of freedom,” he said. Savchuk waved goodbye to his wife and young son at a train station in Kyiv on the war’s second day, and they remain outside the country. He chronicles the invasion in part to ensure that his son’s generation, and those that follow, will always know Ukraine as an independent land.

Savchuk envisions “Ukraine — Crucifixion” as a permanent exhibition that will expand and evolve as he and his staff amass more artifacts. He suggested that, over time, objects from the ongoing war could displace much of the WWII collection that had been displayed before the invasion. The museum’s transition would then mirror the country’s, as the origin story of Ukraine vanquishes Russia’s ceaseless distortions.

“I am a historian, and I have studied how long Russia has tried to destroy Ukraine. But they are no longer writing our history,” he said. “We are.”

Honchar’s research before the war immersed her in the depredations of the Soviet and Nazi regimes in western Ukraine. For the director of the Territory of Terror Memorial Museum in Lviv, Russia’s invasion has deepened her respect for Ukraine’s legacy of persistence.

The museum stands in an area of the city where occupying Nazi authorities confined the local Jewish population starting in 1941, and which later served as the site of a Soviet transit prison. Hundreds of thousands of people passed through the compound, destined for the Soviet Union’s archipelago of forced labor camps, until it closed in 1955.

A few years ago, investigating the prison’s history for a monograph, Honchar discovered that her great-uncle was held there in 1948. Soviet officials detained Mykhailo Voichenko for attending a student protest in western Ukraine, and he languished in Siberia’s coal and mineral mines for the next five years. The personal connection to Ukraine’s tormented past strengthens her resolve to document Russia’s latest attempt to subjugate her homeland.

“Because of the war, my work is now also my life,” she said, sitting in her office. A copy of the monograph was open on her desk to the pages with photos of Voichenko as a student and a prisoner. “We are all victims of this war, so I have learned to adapt.”

Honchar has responded to the invasion by leading the museum’s oral history initiative, which gathers accounts from Ukrainian refugees flowing through Lviv on their way westward to Poland, Romania and other countries. She conceived the project with the hope that the loss and defiance of ordinary civilians will linger in the country’s collective memory long after peace returns to Ukraine.

“One big thing all of this has taught me is to think about how people in 50, 100 years will look at what happened,” she said. “Working here, I always looked backward at the Second World War. Now I am looking forward and thinking about how we can make sure people in the next century remember Russia’s genocide against us.”

The project is only one aspect of Honchar’s efforts to aid her country. A week into the war, she helped launch the Museum Crisis Center, a grassroots campaign that raises funding for city and regional institutions in Ukraine to evacuate collections to safety.

The initiative has supported over 700 museums and galleries to date and provided subsistence payments to hundreds of cultural workers who lost their jobs. “We are trying to make sure our art and our people survive,” she said. “They are risking their lives to save our heritage.”

The Russian military has killed more than 9,000 Ukrainian civilians and damaged or destroyed an estimated 1,600 cultural sites, including museums, cathedrals and memorials. As both tolls rise by the day, Honchar vows to keep fighting, in her way, for her nation’s past and the promise of its future.

“I can’t imagine living in another country,” she said. “Safety isn’t my priority. Ukraine is my priority.”

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